Harper’s magic touch extends to Quebec question

Is it just me or is Stephen Harper a bit scary? Here’s a guy who was behind the door reading economics when they handed out political cunning, blessed with immense lack of charisma, who wins the Alliance leadership, unites the right then beats the Liberals. Now he’s plunged into the swamp of Quebec’s nationhood and come out dry, smelling like a rose. Sure, many pundits are appalled. But one of Mr. Harper’s strengths is he doesn’t care about pundits. Another, unexpected strength seems to be deft political pre-emption.

Remember his promise of a free vote on same-sex marriage early in the last election? Appalled pundits predicted disaster. But whatever one thinks of the substance, it worked politically. And now his sudden resolution that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” pre-empts a Bloc motion that lacked the last four words. I’m a bit uneasy that earlier this year he dismissed the same issue as pointless, a “semantic debate” and an “absurdity.” But again, politically it’s impressive and surprising.

If you think his motion will bring peace, love and trust, you’re quite mistaken. But if you saw his picture on the front page of yesterday’s Citizen and thought that was his goal, you need new glasses. Whether you’d call it a political masterstroke depends on your expectations. Canada doesn’t really lend itself to such things. But certainly his motion has appealing aspects.

First, it boxes in the NDP. They recognized Quebec as a nation at their founding convention in 1961, for all the good it ever did them (one Quebec MP in the 45 years since, in a byelection fluke). But because they’re firmly federalist, this motion leaves no room for them to do much but vote “aye” through clenched teeth because they just lost a Quebec election issue.

The Liberals are in a worse box. It’s hard to imagine them doing anything but voting “aye” through clenched teeth because they wish they’d thought of this resolution first. But for reasons best known to themselves, they find the issue of Quebec as nation-like object so explosive that their leadership candidates were summoned to an emergency meeting by interim leader Bill Graham to discuss how not to discuss it. Now that choice is gone.

It’s not clear whether Mr. Harper thought a brutal fight on the Liberal convention floor over Quebec’s nationhood would imperil Canada, and acted to prevent one, or thought a brutal fight on the Liberal convention floor over Quebec’s nationhood would imperil the Liberals, and acted to cause one. But why would he care? Whether he saves the nation, causes his rivals to implode, or deprives them of a key election issue in central Canada or all three, he wins. And if he has blurred the line between responsible statesman and sharp partisanship on an important issue, how can the Liberals complain? Except perhaps about copyright violation.

Will this resolution kill separatism?

Of course not. Some Quebecers will blame les maudits anglais for their problems in life no matter what anyone does, while others will see the threat of separation as a good way to pry subsidies out of the federal government.

Meanwhile it leaves the Bloc growling sourly in a corner. But they always do anyway, so who really cares? Except it also makes them look petty, saying “Yes but” instead of “How dare you?” which counts as a minor but distinct coup given the tendency of les purs et durs to complain that when the sun rises it shines in francophones’ eyes, and when it sets it leaves them in the dark. I am sorry that it doesn’t seem to matter that Mr. Harper’s motion is plain common sense.

Who among us, in our hearts, does not think Quebec is not a nation-state but fits the sociological definition of a nation, namely that if blindfolded and dropped off there forbidden to ask “Où suis-je?” you’d know immediately anyway? But dismiss from your mind the fear that it gives greater legal force to Quebec separation. If a majority of Quebecers ever vote “yes” on a clear separation question, legal means will be found to let the province go. If they don’t it won’t matter.

The only genuine downside is that the motion will anger some of Mr. Harper’s hard-core supporters. But he doubtless thinks it’s not a make-or-break issue with them, especially if it can be portrayed as a politically astute way of boxing in the other parties. As for annoyed pundits, if Mr. Harper doesn’t see that as a downside, it’s hard to argue with him. He’s given reasonable Quebecers all he reasonably could without giving the unreasonable ones what he could not responsibly give, and in the process confounded his adversaries without unduly discomforting his friends.

Swamp? What swamp? I smell flowers. How does he do it?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson